What is a Service Animal?

A seeing-eye dog assists a visually impaired person.
Service dogs must undergo thorough training before being allowed to work with people.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 16 April 2014
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A service animal is an animal which has been specially trained to assist an individual with disabilities. Common examples of service animals include guide dogs and horses, therapy animals, and animals which pull wheelchairs or otherwise assist people with mobility impairments. Service animals are an important part of life for their disabled partners, who have more independence and freedom thanks to their service animal companions. In addition, most nations have laws protecting the rights of service animals, along with people with disabilities.

In order to be considered a service animal, an animal needs to be individually trained to provide a service. Many service animals are also registered with a service animal organization and a state or national service animal registry, but this is not required. The training for a service animal represents months of work, as the animal must be trained to be good natured and obedient in a variety of situations, while also protecting its owner. Service animals are taught to perform tasks such as looking out for traffic when their owners are blind, or alerting a deaf owner to a potential hazard. At the same time, a service animal is taught “intelligent disobedience,” meaning that it will refuse to carry out an order which it believes is dangerous.


While some breeds of animal are favored more than others for service, the primary concern is the animal's temperament. Dogs, for example, are chosen for being friendly, easy to handle, loyal, and patient. Typically, a potential service animal undergoes extensive behavioral testing before being accepted into a training program. Above all, a service animal is not a pet, although the animal is probably loved by its owners. If you see someone with a service animal, always ask for permission before petting or handling it, and be aware that if the animal is working, you may not be allowed to touch it.

In addition to service animals assisting people with obvious disabilities, such as blindness, other service animals work as comfort or therapy animals. Some of the most famous therapy animals have been unusual species, like chickens. A therapy animal can either work in a hospital or clinical location helping a large number of patients, or be assigned to work with a specific person. Studies undertaken by organizations like the Humane Society of the United States indicate that working with animals really does make people feel better, and this is the goal of a therapy animal.

People with service animals sometimes face discrimination from business owners who do not know the law. In the United States especially, there are extensive legal protections for service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). According to the ADA, a service animal must be allowed everywhere its owner is, and shall not be treated as a “pet” by business owners. This law supersedes local ordinances, which may, for example, prohibit dogs from restaurants. Failure to admit someone with a service animal into a business or workplace is grounds for a very serious lawsuit.


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